Law firm DWF has last minute tips for the food industry’s preparations for this weekend’s new labelling rules

Dominic Watkins, partner at law firm DWF, has six last minute tips to help the food industry get ready for the new EU-wide food labelling regulations, which come into force this weekend 

With only a matter of days until we enter a new era of food labelling law, food manufacturers, retailers, wholesalers, and food service establishments around the country will be hastily putting the final touches to their new packaging and labels.

The scale of this task should not be under-estimated; while many obligations are substantially similar, they are subtly different, meaning that every label for every product will need to be changed in one way or another.

While many are now set up for the changes being brought in by the EU Regulation on the Provision of Food Information to Consumers (1169/2011) (FIC), which comes into force on 13 December 2014, there will be those rolling into their busiest few weeks of the year under-prepared.

Those in this camp do not have much time left, but thankfully there are a number of ways to mitigate the risk.

We have identified a few areas within the legislation that those making up time, and even those that feel well prepared, should pay close attention to:

  • Don’t panic – anything packaged before or on 13 December 2014 can stay on the shelf, even if it isn’t compliant, so many will be running down their stock of old labels and packaging while they get themselves compliant. We are therefore likely to see the label changes more rapidly on more perishable goods than on those products with a longer life span. Given the scale of the change, we are told that initial enforcement activity will have a “light touch”
  • Check your supply chain – make sure your suppliers understand the information that you now need, and that they are providing you FIC compliant products. This will expedite getting it right
  • Don’t forget phase two – while the majority of changes are coming into force on 13 December 2014, there is a second wave, which doesn’t kick in until December 2016. These changes concern nutrition labelling, whereby ‘back of pack’ nutritional information, including calorie content, will become mandatory. Those who are still implementing phase one should have one eye on the second phase to ensure they bring in the changes in the most efficient way possible
  • Online compliance – mandatory information must be provided to the customer before the purchase is concluded. This therefore means that websites and catalogues must be updated so that the necessary information is provided for ‘distance sales’, and that systems need to be in place to ensure that all of the now-necessary information is being sourced from suppliers
  • Consider your brands – even if you only sell third-party products, you must not supply food that you ‘know or presume to be’ non-compliant, and you must be able to ‘verify’ that this requirement is met. Know your brands – little, if indeed any, verification will need to be carried out in relation to products manufactured by large food manufacturers, but you may decide that spot checks on a sample of products from your smaller producers are required
  • Audit allergens – non-prepacked food must also now provide allergen information. This applies to loose foods sold in a retail setting, as well as to food supplied in a catering context (including restaurants, staff canteens, and even catered meetings in an office environment), so check whether this could affect any sections of your business and consider how your location can provide that information to consumers. Getting allergens right is vital, as the incoming national legislation in the UK (the Food Information Regulations 2014) makes it an offence not to comply with the allergen requirements of FIC

This legislation was first proposed on 30 January 2008, and the food and retail industry have already spent huge amounts of money in preparation for it, but with the government guidance on the topic arriving very late in the day and the EU only this week producing a consultation on allergen guidance, there are many unknowns where businesses have had to make a call on how to comply. And even for those that have successfully delivered the label changes, there are many more pitfalls to navigate, not least around the second wave of changes due in a couple of years’ time, as well as the EU’s decision on whether the UK’s ‘traffic light’ system is compliant, and a range of other delegated legislation still to be made.

There are strategies, however, based on a thorough understanding of the legislation, which can help mitigate the risks involved. Make sure you know where you stand.